By William T. Mulcahy, LPC, NCC, CEAP, author of the Zach Rules series
As I’ve been thinking about writing this post about helping kids overcome shame, I’ve been struggling to capture my thoughts about the issue. Based on my experiences, there is nothing harder to deal with as a therapist, as a parent—and it would seem as a writer—than shame.
Shame, or the sense that there is something wrong with oneself (as opposed to guilt, which is the sense that one has done something wrong), is like a worm, digging its way inside and laying nasty, defective thoughts such as, “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not worthy,” and “I’m inadequate.” What is even more unfortunate is when these defective thoughts take up permanent residence inside of us, where they have the potential to cause significant mental health and interpersonal issues. Simply put, it’s very hard to love or respect yourself or have healthy relationships if you think you are a piece of garbage.
Now that I’ve freaked you out about shame, let me give you some good news. We, as adults, can make a tremendous difference in helping children become more resilient to shame. It’s not all bad.
Children experience normal feelings of shame all the time. When students make a mistake, we often see their faces turn red. When they get caught doing something wrong, they feel ashamed and gain a sense that they are not omnipotent. When the shame becomes too hard to handle, kids become flooded physically, initiating the fight, flight, or freeze response.
If handled properly by adults, shame can help kids get a deeper sense of learning from their behavior, thoughts, and feelings. It all starts with the attitude that we adopt toward kids’ wrongdoings and shame. Think of the proverbial I don’t approve of your actions but I always approve of you. Or, I don’t like your choices but I always like you. As we’ve all experienced, adults’ words, attitudes, and behaviors toward kids are often the linchpin that determines whether shame will be a learning tool or will turn into a wily worm.
As the teacher Haim G. Ginott said in his book Teacher and Child, “I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.”
These words are framed and hang on my office wall. Though Ginott is speaking specifically of the teacher-student relationship, his words stand as a reminder of the important role I play in protecting children and my other clients from shame. As adults, we all must wield our power wisely, with an eye on protecting our students from shame and on building shame resiliency.
I grew up in a family in which I often felt shamed for expressing my emotions and for simply being a kid. “Billy, you’re being silly” and “Kids should be seen and not heard” were common remarks that still resonate deep inside me. I often mishandled my shame by throwing temper tantrums or by shutting down. I remember a specific time when I was ten years old and was accused of cheating while playing cards. I ended up throwing the cards and running out of the room in tears. Nobody ever told me, “It’s okay, Billy. What you are feeling is shame.” I wish they would have normalized the experience and asked, “Where did you feel the shame in your body?” I wish they would have taught me how to breathe and talk myself through my difficult feelings of shame. Instead, I was shamed for my shame response, and the worm embedded itself deeper into me. My parents weren’t cruel. They didn’t know better and most likely followed in the footsteps of their own parents.
We never know what shame experiences our students bring with them into the classroom. Although each child is an individual, we can look at some patterns to help us understand children as they relate to shame. The way I see it, some children have very good abilities to handle shame, can spontaneously recover from shameful situations, and are able to integrate their shame experiences into their lifestyles in positive ways. Other children have adequate shame resiliency, which involves harder, longer-lasting work to recover from shame. And still others have poor shame resiliency, which leaves them dysregulated and perhaps even wounded following a shameful incident, making it much harder to surmount the experience.
Children’s varying abilities to cope with shame are a combination of their neurological, psychological, and biological makeups, which are part of their genetic inheritances and environmental experiences. Mindful teachers are aware of their students’ shame resiliency, take nonjudgmental mental notes about their students’ abilities to handle shame, and adjust their teaching and relationships as needed with each student.
A good reminder in helping students is the ABCDEs of building shame resiliency.
- Awareness. We need to help students become more aware of their behaviors, feelings, thoughts, and the current situation that surrounds the shame. Being aware is what allows us to grow and make changes. Otherwise we are ships sailing on the sea without a rudder or sail. Promoting and developing awareness in our students through mindfulness, creative visualization, meditation, self-reflection, and other awareness activities is crucial for helping students overcome shame and for their overall success.
- Be gentle. Shame resiliency can be hard work. Teach students to be gentle with themselves when they make mistakes or experience shame. When students struggle, they often develop negative mindsets such as “I’m not good enough” that, if we’re not careful, can stick with them the rest of their lives. We need to help students develop positive mindsets such as “I am good enough,” “I’m important,” “I can handle it,” and “I belong.” We can do this by teaching them to use positive self-talk and by helping them feel and deal with shame and the situation at hand.
- Create a safe place. Shame resiliency is often gritty, messy work that may trigger your own hardships of being a child or of struggling with relationships. In many ways, it is much easier to focus on math or reading than it is to delve into the ambiguity of emotions, self-talk, and relationships. Therefore, it is vital that students feel comfortable bringing their shame and other worries into the classroom and sharing them with adults. In many ways, our classrooms and the cultures we create are like invisible conduits telling students whether or not it is safe to bring up this gritty stuff.
- Develop active coping skills. One thing that affects our abilities to cope with difficult emotions like shame is whether we take an active or a passive approach. Inspire and reinforce that students be a part of their own shame resiliency. The sense that “I can do it; I can make a difference” is an important countermeasure to shame. Write social stories showing students how to take an active role. Use examples from books, movies, and the news. Be a good role model when your face turns red.
- Encourage students to reach out. Help students develop a supportive network of peers, adults, and family members with whom they can share their shame. One of the antidotes to shame is telling someone your shame story and being received with empathy. Empathy can purify the festering worm.
I realize that it is not a simple task to help students become resilient to shame. But seriously, although knowing the capital of Kansas or learning to add 2 + 2 is important, realizing they are good enough and that they are worthy people is perhaps the most valuable lesson we can teach students. It is one we can hope to implant permanently into their memory cores.
William Mulcahy is a licensed professional counselor and psychotherapist. He has served as a supervisor at Family Service of Waukesha and as a counselor at Stillwaters Cancer Support Center in Wisconsin, specializing in grief and cancer-related issues. He has also worked with children with special needs. Currently he works in private practice in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, and is the owner of Kids Cope Now, a program for providing books and tools to help kids in the hospital. Bill lives with his wife and family near Summit, Wisconsin.
Free Spirit books by William Mulcahy:
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